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Moving to the Bay Area with School-Aged Kids

Berkeley Parents Network > Reviews > K-12 Schools > Moving to the Bay Area with School-Aged Kids


Welcome to the Bay Area!

This page has advice about how to find schools for your child if you are new to the area, especially for families that are new to the US.


General Information about Bay Area Schools Related Pages Reviews of Local Schools

Ages and Grades (School Levels)

Here is general advice about what is available in the Bay Area depending on the child's age:

Infants to 5 year olds
There is no "free" school or childcare unless you qualify for a low-income program. Most families in the area who need childcare for children under 5 use one of the following: (1) Home-Based Daycares, which are people who are licensed to care for a small group of children in their homes. (2) Childcare Centers, which have their own sites. This includes centers that are operated by UC Berkeley for its affiliates. (3) Nannies who come to your home to provide childcare. They are very popular for babies, and many people share a nanny with 1 or 2 other families to make the cost more affordable. You can find a nanny by Subscribing to BPN and reading the weekly Childcare newsletter. (4) Pre-Schools for 3 and 4 year olds, either in someone's home or in a dedicated building. Public schools also provide a pre-kindergarten program for children who reached their 5th birthday between September and December.

5 to 10 year olds
Most elementary schools are either K-5 or K-8 at a site separate from older children, although some private schools are K-12. For both private and public schools, children must have reached their 5th birthday by September 1 in order to enter Kindergarten. Public school districts also provide a Pre-K program for children who are not quite 5 by the deadline. There is some flexibility about the starting age for private schools, but the great majority of private schools follow the 5-by-Sept1 rule. Most of the local public and private elementary schools are reviewed on BPN's website Here.

11 to 13 year olds
Most local public school districts have one or more Middle Schools that are located at their own sites, although a few districts have schools that are K-8 inclusive. There are some private schools that cater exclusively to middle school students, and others that are K-8. See BPN's list of Middle Schools to read more.

14 to 18 year olds
Most of the local school districts (Berkeley, El Cerrito, Albany, Piedmont) have only one high school, sometimes with an additional alternative school. Bigger districts like Oakland have more than one high school. In many school districts it is common for children who attended private schools to switch to public school for high school, so there are not as many private high schools as elementary schools. See BPN's list of local public and private High Schools.


Public School vs. Private School

Public Schools are funded by local, state, and federal taxes and are free. Each city has its own school system. Your children are entitled to attend the public school in the school district you live in, and most local children do attend public school. Charter schools are also public schools but they are run independently of local school districts. Any child who lives in California can attend any charter school, regardless of which city they live in. There are many charter schools in Oakland, but there are few to none in other districts.

Private Schools, also called "Independent Schools", are privately run, usually by either a non-profit corporation or a religious organization. You must apply to these schools, usually one year before your child will start school. Some private schools receive many more applications than they have space available, and parents plan years ahead of time to apply; other private schools have openings throught the year. More information about this is below.


Which Public School?

Which public schools your child can attend depends on which city you live in (except Charter Schools - see below). If you are affilited with UC Berkeley, you may be living in Berkeley, Oakland, Albany, El Cerrito, or one of the other nearby cities. Each of these cities has its own school district, with it own rules about how children are assigned to schools. Oakland is the largest local school district, followed by San Francisco, and then Berkeley.

Most local school districts have "neighborhood schools." This means that your child will usually be assigned to the school that is closest to your home. Oakland, Albany, and El Cerrito assign children to the school in their neighborhood. Other school districts including Berkeley and San Francisco assign children to schools based on socio-economic distribution across the city in order to balance the schools. In these districts, you can request the school you want, but you may be assigned to a different school depending on the district's needs at the time.

You can find maps of neighborhoods on the school district's websites, along with more information about the schools in the district. See BPN's list of Public School Districts to see a list of schools in each district, read parents' reviews, and find links to the school district's page.

You may apply to attend a school in another school district, or you may request a different school in your home district from the one you were assigned to. This might be easy or hard, depending on the district. For example, it is next to impossible to attend Berkeley, Albany, or Piedmont schools if you do not live in these cities. BPN has many discussions about this - see pages for the districts you are interested in.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are also public schools, and they are open to all children in California regardless of which school district they live in. Charter schools are a relatively new concept in California, and there can be a lot of fluctuation in enrollment and popularity. Oakland has a great many charter schools; other East Bay cities have few or none. Some charter schools are very popular and are difficult to gain entrance to, others are easier. You can read reviews of some of the charter schools Here.


Which Private School?

This really depends on what you are looking for, how much you can spend, and how far you are willing to drive!
BPN's List of Private Schools groups local private schools by city. Most students at private schools in Oakland, for example, do live in Oakland. BPN also has reviews of schools based on criteria such as religious affiliation, academic philosophy, art and music programs, and more. See School Reviews by Type of School.


How to Register your Kids for School

Public School Registration

You can register at any time, although if you register during the official enrollment period (usually January-February for the following Fall), you have a better chance of getting your choice of school in some districts such as Berkeley and Oakland. You will usually need to visit the school district's office in person in order to enroll your child and you will need to have proof of your residence, such as a rental agreement, bank account, etc. This means that you will most likely be registering your child after you have already moved here and have found a place to live. In addition to proof of residence in the district, you will need your child's birth certificate and immunization record, along with reports/grades from previous schools.

Once you have registered, your child can usually begin attending school immediately. All residents within a school district are guaranteed a place in a school in the district. Each district has its own requirements about what is required, so check their website (see BPN's list of Public School Districts for links.)

If you are interested in a Charter School, you will need to contact the school directly. See the list of local charter schools.

Private School Registration

Most local private schools follow a yearly application cycle that goes like this:
- October to December: the schools host tours and open houses for prospective students
- January: deadline for applying to the school
- March: acceptance notices are sent out
- August: school starts

Information about admissions events and applications can be found on each school's websites, and many of them also make announcements in BPN's weekly Schools & Preschools newsletters during the months of September through December.

What if you will not be here for the admission cycle? Or if you arrive mid-year?
There are a few local private schools that are always full, and can never accept a new student mid-year. But this is the exception. Most private schools do have openings here and there, throughout the school year, because families move away, or financial situations change, or people fall out of love with their child's school! Many private schools are very interested in enrolling students from other countries, and most are enthusiastic about families who have an association with UC Berkeley. You will need to contact each school individually. Look for the email address for the Admissions Director on the school's website.


When does the school year start & end?

Every school district and each private school makes its own calendar, but in general, most preschools and K-12 schools follow this school year: There are 8-10 additional one-day holidays per year, either federal holidays or teacher conferences, workshops, and the like.

Most local private schools (and at least one public school district - West Contra Costa) also add on an additional week in February, usually called "Presidents' Week" but referred to informally and perhaps derisively as "Ski Week."

Please check the website for your school district or private school to find out what the exact dates are.


How much does school cost?

Public Schools are free. You may need to pay for lunches and before-school and after-school care, depending on your income.

Private Schools in 2013 ranged from $6,000 a year for some Catholic schools to more than $30,000 a year for some private schools. Financial aid may be available. Nearly all local private schools list tuition amounts on their websites. Check the List of Private Schools to find a link to the school's website.


Kids Who Don't Speak English

Because of UC Berkeley's international reputation, many families come to Berkeley every year on sabbatical, or as visiting scholars, or as students, from all over the world. Schools in the city of Berkeley and surrounding communities are very accustomed to admitting children who do not speak English, or who don't speak it well. Public school classrooms typically have children who speak a number of different languages, and it is not unusual, especially at younger ages, to have a child or two in the class who starts the school year not speaking English. Children pick up a new language very rapidly. Many public schools have special programs for English language learners.

Many local private schools are also accustomed to students who do not speak English. How common this is at any particular private school depends on the school. If you are interested in private schools, you should contact the school directly to find out how they support students who do not speak English.

There are a number of schools in the area, mostly private, but some public, that are either bilingual or are exclusively non-English, especially Spanish, French, and Mandarin. See BPN's list of Bilingual & Immersion Schools.


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this page was last updated: Jul 6, 2014


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